Define “Religious”

I talk about religion a lot, often because I am asked to or I am asked questions about religion. For a number of years, even after my conversion and after I became serious about practicing the faith, I hesitated to call myself religious. It seemed to have so many negative connotations for others and even for myself. I actually fell, for awhile, for the New Atheist insistence that to be really religious means to be a fundamentalist, which is absolutely not true and perhaps the topic for a future blog post. But in the past five years, and right around the time I started this blog, I have evolved on my position. Yes, I am in fact religious. As the tagline of this page states, “Reasonably Religious, Religiously Reasonable.”

The origins of the English word religion are interesting. It begins with the Classical Latin religare, which means “to bind.” Religare morphs into religio, which adds a connotation of reverence or high regard. Scholars trace the first written use of it to Cicero, who employs the term in connection to strict observance of local cultic practices. Further, we see that by the time Middle English emerges with “religion,” Old French had added to the word ideas of monastic strictures such that the term has been freighted with all sorts of expectations and requirements, yet without the specific details of what expectations must be met. We know what religion means, but what it is remains to be decided.

At its heart, religion seeks to bind us. To God, to ourselves, to one another. Religion is about relationships, and a sense of obligation and commitment to remain in those relationships even through difficulties. Religion might mean a commitment to certain behaviors and moral codes; it might mean the performance of certain rituals or rites; it can be attenuated by sacred scriptures or other written/oral traditions; and a whole host of other features. And defining religion? Well, it depends on your discipline. The legal definition is very different than the one provided by the IRS. Academic definitions can vary widely; and if you ever want to start some static in a room full of intellectuals, ask whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion. Then run. Or get a drink and some popcorn. Either way, something dramatic is going to happen. I used to give the assignment as a final essay to my students, and some of them would hand in the papers with the look of someone who had been crying all night.

I offer all of this because I have spent most of my academic and professional life thinking about and reflecting upon religion. I love having conversations with people in various traditions and disciplines to talk about religion, faith, community, and all the other things that come hand-in-hand with religion. That wonderful yet terrifying creation that has been responsible for some of the most beautiful and more destructive forces in the world. And the more I learn and discover the more I know that I don’t know, and the more that I understand religion can come in ways that are surprising, revolutionary, and unexpected.A religious act can be eating bread in mindfulness, or anointing the body of a person recently deceased. It can be sprinkling water on the forehead of a child, or the passing of an ancestral sword to the next generation. Religion–that which binds us–can be indescribably beautiful.

What it can’t be is the amoral, opportunistic, vapid, insubstantial, self-aggrandizing, Mammon-serving claptrap that Donald Trump displays in his life. He is bound only to himself, to his fragile ego that can only be protected by a worldview that relegates people to being either “terrific” or “losers.” He has never asked forgiveness from God because he does not know how to extend it. Or maybe that should go the other way around. He famously holds grudges for decades, sending quippy notes and emails to rub his perceived success into the face of someone who was inadequately fawning. For him, being religious means winning the Evangelical vote.

If this is not a gut-check time for Evangelical America, I don’t know what is. You’ve been saying to us for years that you vote your values. You have excused horrible treatment of women who seeks abortions, GLBT persons who want to marry, and immigrants who want to have a track to citizenship for years because of your values. And you’re willing to vote for this man, and accept that he calls himself “religious”?

So, I guess I’ve been wrong the past five years. Guess I’m not religious after all.

 

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